Blackbird has spoken

Regular followers of my ‘twit feed’, or whatever it is called, may have noticed a certain fixation with blackbirds since my return to England. Fixation might be fair, certainly as far as birds in general are concerned. But blackbirds? I have been driven to mention them on an almost daily basis because every day they follow me – the first birds heard over breakfast, the bird always singing somewhere in the garden, the bird always gracing the lawn with its presence when all others are hiding away from the ‘European monsoon’.

And whilst they may not be remarkable in appearance, they are definitely striking. Consider how black the male blackbird is: the orange of his beak not subtle at all, a hue chosen from a child’s colouring box, dayglo, perhaps in competition amongst its kind to see whose can shine out brightest across the garden as a lantern to the local ladies. Smooth. When he’s out there on the lawn early in spring, he’s strutting his stuff, saying, ‘look at me!’ Did you ever see such a splendid representative of blackbird kind, a bird so black, a beak so orange?

Of course they bring drama as well as colour. If sparrowhawks don’t regularly buzz your bird feeders, or foxes patrol the borders, blackbirds could be the most voracious, effective predators of your garden lawn, top of the food chain. The expanse of grasses, moss and clover are his Serengeti, vast and wild, he the lion, lord of the savannah. Or the tangled jungles of India, cast over by the tiger’s burning eye. Under his feet the antelope, the earthworm, trembles at the thought of swift death from above. The blackbird hops at speed across the turf, stops, cocks his head, and spotting movement stabs at the worm, tugs, inhales it whole, and it’s gone. I imagine it’s why the blackbird is the first songster to start up at dawn – after all, it’s the early bird that catches the worm. So much for worm conservation. They don’t stand a chance.

For all this ferocity, there is something comfortingly English about the blackbird. On my last trip to the U.S. I think I finally made peace with the idea of leaving the native birds of Europe, my familiars, behind. I could imagine living amongst the birds of America, in all their beauty and surprising diversity. But from the first day back, the song of the blackbird stood out as something that had been missing for two weeks, and would be hard indeed to lose. American robins provide a sort of substitute, a bird of the same genus (the rather undignified sounding ‘turdus’) and with similar worm hunting behaviour, hopping across the vast sprinkler-fed backyards of suburbia; and caroling a gentle repetitive song from dawn’til dusk. But the song just doesn’t have the same sweet quality; it sounds more alien to my ears: pleasant, but not full of joy and light like a blackbird.

The English robins sing all year and are rightly loved by many, but the sweet, fluted, lyrical improvisations of the blackbird ring in my memory as the sound of an English summer, especially appropriate in the quaint rural Hampshire village we live in at the moment – it’s John Major’s warm pints of bitter, cricket on the green and elderly spinsters cycling slowly to Evensong in audible form. Perhaps sensing this, blackbirds seem to love it here: every expanse of grass in the village seems to harbour one at any given time, five or six squabbling for territory on the playing fields – good hunting grounds, I presume.

Its song even makes guest appearances in ours: the ‘first bird’ in Eleanor Farjeon’s famous Victorian hymn (which has a surprising lack of Victorian reserve when you consider the lyrics: ‘Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning’); or singing sweetly with Paul McCartney in the dead of a 1960’s night.

And what about the ‘serious’ side? Is the biological organism itself, the 100 or so grams of feathers, bones and flesh in good shape for the future, long to propagate the pleasant image and exciting drama of our ‘blackbird’ down through human generations? The BTO says ‘moderate decline’ since the 60’s, mostly due to a dip in the 90’s. Blackbirds have recovered from this but are still slightly down in numbers – it’s one of those slightly vague, ‘this bird is generally fine’ kind of assessments, no firm reasons given for any past decline, that reassures but leaves one with a sense of unease. If the house sparrow could get into trouble, so could the blackbird. So next time you see one, appreciate it, notice it, enjoy it – keep an eye and an ear out for them – it’s another bird we’d be utterly diminished without.

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